Jerry Lewis (L) & Dean Martin
One of Dean Martin’s & Jerry Lewis’s connected ‘friends’ in the fifties was the gangster Willie Moretti, a long-time associate of mob boss Frank Costello. Willie was the man who allegedly ‘convinced’ Tommy Dorsey to let Sinatra out of his contract with the bandleader, by poking a gun in Tommy’s mouth and having him sign the necessary paper – ‘or else’. That was back in the thirties. In the early fifties he met and formed a fondness for Dean & Jerry, even extending an invitation to them to attend his daughter’s wedding. They could scarcely refuse and performed gratis at the reception. Willie never forgot a favour and, soon afterwards, invited them to lunch with him at his favourite restaurant, Joe’s Elbow Room in Cliffside Park, New Jersey. They promised to be there but Jerry came down with a severe case of the mumps the day before and the duo had to cancel. Later that afternoon they heard on the radio that Willie had been shot to death as he dined that day at Joe’s Elbow Room!
Movie-wise, 1952 &1953 were arguably the comic duo’s best years with Sailor Beware and Jumping Jacks in ’52, and The Stooge, Scared Stiff and The Caddy released the following year. Hal Wallis produced these films and, more importantly, edited them as well. As an editor of dramas he had few equals, his shining moment being when he turned Casablanca (1942) into the classic it has since become. But the man had not the faintest idea about comedy and was not one to be told of his shortcomings. ‘I’ve been making films for forty years’, was his usual response. He knew the Martin & Lewis comedy formula was a successful one but, as the years rolled by, Dean became more and more disillusioned by his part in their success. Critics raved about Jerry’s performances, yet all but ignored Martin’s hugely important role. And it grated on him. Not at first, but later.
Joe’s Elbow Room, New Jersey 1951
Jerry was a massive fan of his partner’s singing, so much so that, in 1952, he secretly approached Oscar-winning songwriter Harry Warren and his lyricist Jack Brooks, paid them $30,000 out of his own pocket, and asked them to pen a hit song for Dean for their upcoming feature film, The Caddy. They came up with the iconic That’s Amore and it was a monster hit. Huge. It sold two million as a single and was nominated for an Academy Award. Suddenly, Dean had become a serious recording artist.
It is little wonder that Dean became sick and tired of being demeaned and humiliated in print by critics who considered Martin & Lewis to be a ‘one-man show’, and that one man was not Dino. Thomas O’Malley, a staff writer for a fifties magazine called TV Forecast, wrote a scathing piece typical of the items that began to get to the crooner: ‘Although Martin is probably the best partner Jerry could ever have teamed up with, let’s face it, Lewis could have paired off with Walter Brennan and been a sensation. He IS the team. If his stuff ever becomes ho-hum material, Dean certainly wouldn’t be able to carry the slack.’ In August ’54, Jerry was diagnosed with hepatitis and was ordered to bed for several weeks. Rather than cancel their engagement at Ciro’s altogether, Dean decided to perform solo – and he knocked them dead! He sang in his own voice and in Jerry’s, cracked jokes and played to the microphone as if it was his absent partner. The audience applauded, whistled and stamped their feet.
The partnership was in its death-throes when the duo travelled to Arizona in 1955 to shoot the ironically titled Pardners. It is one of their weaker vehicles, plagued by a seemingly endless parade of cold and rainy days that delayed filming, not to mention a couple of stars who spoke to each other only when the script demanded they do so. At the conclusion of the picture, however, they stepped out of character to assure patrons that everything was fine between them. ‘We have something to say to you, right, Dean?’ said Lewis. ‘We sure do, Jer’, Martin replied. ‘We want you folks to know we sure enjoyed workin’ for ya, and we hope you enjoyed the picture.’ ‘Yeah’, and we hope you’ll keep coming to see us’, chipped in Lewis, ‘because we like seeing you.’ The movie was released on July 25, 1956 – the day after the comedy duo officially broke up!
Jerry & Dean with producer Hal Wallis
Their final film together was Hollywood or Bust (1956). Off the set they never spoke to each other. Pardners had been produced by their own company York Productions, so costly delays and disruptions had been kept to a minimum. This one, however, was a Hal Wallis production. Any delays cost him money, not Martin & Lewis – and Jerry was in a bloody-minded mood. In short, he was completely off the rails, constantly picking fights with Wallis, the director Frank Tashlin, and members of the cast and crew. Tashlin reached breaking point one afternoon and stopped production. ‘I want you off the set’, he told a flabbergasted Jerry. ‘You’re a discourteous, obnoxious prick – an embarrassment to me and a disgrace to the profession.’ A stunned Lewis left the set and went home where he did some soul-searching. Later that evening he rang Tashlin and begged to be reinstated, vowing to behave himself. They completed the picture. Jerry maintained he never saw Hollywood or Bust because it stirred up too many negative memories.
Dean in The Young Lions (1958)
Martin & Lewis still had contractual commitments to complete after they officially broke up. These included ten nights at the 500 Club in Atlantic City; a 21-hour muscular dystrophy telethon broadcast from Carnegie Hall; and three shows a night for thirteen days at the Copa, winding up on July 24, the tenth anniversary of their time together as a team. And then it was over. Hal Wallis had lost his big money-spinning team but he barely skipped a beat. Ten days later he started shooting Love Me Tender with his newest discovery, a young and eager Elvis Presley. Wallis knew as much about music as he did about comedy. Nothing. But he again made a fortune.
Jerry with Judy Garland at the Frontier Hotel ’56
The word on the street was more or less unanimous. Jerry would continue to succeed on his own but Dean would not make it without his goofy partner. And the initial indications tended to vindicate that prognosis. Dean’s first picture as a solo was the very ordinary Ten Thousand Bedrooms (1957). His second, however, The Young Lions (1958), provided him with a good opportunity to really act and he surprised everyone. The following year he made Rio Bravo alongside John Wayne and he never looked back. Then someone had the good sense to tap into his marvellous sense of humour. Before long he was a hit on stage in Vegas, and that led to his own enormously popular TV show, one that kept him at the top of the television pile for almost a quarter of a century. And all the while he kept churning out hit singles and albums. In 1964, he did something that no other recording artist had been able to do to that point. His single, ‘Everybody Loves Somebody’, knocked the Beatles off top spot on the American charts!
In the summer of ’56 Jerry was asked to go on for an ill Judy Garland at the Frontier Hotel in Vegas in front of a thousand people. He was quite brilliant and even rounded off the show by singing ‘Rock- a -Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody’. Never one to underestimate his talents, he approached Capitol Records about a recording contract. They turned him down but Decca picked him up. His first album reached # 3 on the LP charts! He made 16 movies during the sixties, either starring in, directing, producing – or all three. Some were hits. Most were not so good. His son Gary became a chart-topping singer until he enlisted in the Army and saw action in the Vietnam War, action that affected him psychologically.
After slipping and injuring his back while dancing on TV in 1965, Jerry became addicted to the painkiller Percodan. He also lost millions in failed business ventures, particularly a chain of Jerry Lewis Cinemas around the US that lost money. In 1973, he locked himself in his bathroom and put a .38 pistol in his mouth, intending to end it all. But he did not go through with it. Then, at the Sahara in Vegas, he was performing for Telethon, raising money to fight muscular dystrophy, when his guest star Frank Sinatra brought Dean onto the stage to surprise him. The former partners hugged for the first time in 20 years and the audience went wild.
Dean Martin lost interest in life after his beloved son Dino died in a plane crash in 1987. Diagnosed with lung cancer in September 1993, the aging singer quit smoking but refused major lung and kidney surgery that may have prolonged his life. Dean died on Christmas Day 1995. He was 78. Jerry Lewis outlived him by 22 years, passing away at 91 in 2017. He was once nominated for a Nobel Prize for his fifty years of raising money for muscular dystrophy!
My Uncle, who owned a very successful, bottle cap factory, in Brooklyn, N.Y., was asked to invest, in a new comedy duo, just starting out. He went to see them perform and politely declined, stating that they would never go anywhere because he felt that Lewis was too silly.
Wow! It is easy in hindsight to ridicule such a decision, of course, but that kind of thing happens quite often. If someone had come to me and pitched the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles idea, I am quite certain I would have dismissed the idea out of hand. I believe Decca Records turned down The Beatles before they went to Parlaphone. Shirley Temple missed out when she auditioned for the ‘Our Gang’ shorts. And the list goes on. Thankyou, Mike, for your interesting note.